by Calder Loth
Senior Architectural Historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and a member of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art’s Advisory Council.
In his famous Parallèle de l’Architecture Antique avec la Modern (Paris, 1650), the French amateur classicist, Roland Fréart de Chambray (1606-1676), illustrated numerous classical orders from specific ancient sites.[i] Most of these were observed by him during the years 1630-1635 when he lived in Rome. Among them was a late and distinctive version of the Doric order found in fragments in the vast complex of the fourth-century Baths of Diocletian.[ii] The fragments have since disappeared, and the order remains known only through the reconstruction illustration in Fréart’s treatise. (Fig.2) The distinguishing features of the order are the Apollo masks with their surrounding rays in the metopes, and the dentils with their vertical slits.[iii] Another defining detail is the cyma recta or S-curved echinus in the capital, which Fréart shows ornamented with foliage. While not unique to this order, a cyma-curved echinus is extremely rare in ancient versions of the Doric. The overwhelming majority of surviving examples employ an ovolo echinus, either ornamented (usually with eggs and darts) or plain.
Although Fréart’s illustration is the only published source of the Diocletian Doric, the order, or a similar version of it apparently was known to early Renaissance architects.[iv] A somewhat simplified form appears in the lower tier of the courtyard in the Rome’s Palazzo Cancelleria (1489-1513). It features a cyma recta echinus, albeit a plain one, as well as rosettes in the necking.[v] (Fig. 4) The Cancelleria’s architect has not been determined, though Donato Bramante is believed to have contributed to the design of the courtyard. We see a faithful reproduction of the Cancelleria variant applied four hundred years later by the firm of McKim, Mead & White to the courtyard arcade of the Boston Public Library.[vi] (Fig. 5)
Thomas Jefferson relied on Fréart’s treatise as a primary source for several of the classical orders in his designs for both Monticello and the University of Virginia. Despite eliminating many of the embellishments, Jefferson understood the necessity of maintaining canonical correctness in each of the orders’ basic elements. His earliest use of the Diocletian Doric appears in the internal entablature of the north piazza of Monticello, added by 1809. (Fig. 6) Here he incorporated the gouged dentils but avoided the leafy decorations of the bed moldings. He also decorated the metopes with masks though smaller than Fréart’s example, and without the surrounding rays. Later, in the 1820s, he had the parlors of Pavilions VI and IX at the University of Virginia highlighted with similar entablatures. (Figs. 7 & 8) The metope masks in these rooms are more consistent in size with Fréart’s illustration, but still devoid of rays. These masks are of special composition material supplied by the ornament maker William J. Coffee of New York. Coffee apparently was unaware that the masks were supposed to represent Apollo, and molded his masks with puffy cheeks, giving them a child-like visage.
Jefferson was truer to Fréart’s plate on the university’s Pavilion I. (Fig. 9) As with his entablatures, he avoided enriching the moldings; nevertheless, the Apollo masks are definitely adults and are set off by their emanating rays as depicted by Fréart, though Pavilion I’s rays are more spikey. The echinus is properly treated as a cyma recta, but it too is undecorated. As often happens with the Doric order, Jefferson or his builders cut corners by applying flat guttae rather than the round ones shown by Fréart. Flat guttae also appear on the three entablatures previously discussed. Pavilion I is one of five pavilions in Jefferson’s “Academical Village” for which the exterior order is taken from Fréart’s ancient examples. The remaining five pavilions display versions of Palladio’s orders.
Jefferson’s insistence on strict adherence to classical precedents enabled many of the university’s builders to become proficient in crafting canonically correct detailing. Hence, following completion of the university complex, many of the builders went on to design and build houses, churches, and public buildings throughout Virginia displaying many of the same classical features seen at the university. A conspicuous example of this phenomenon is the 1833 Fredericksburg Presbyterian Church. (Fig. 10) Its builders have not been documented, but it is safe to assume they were associated with the university and were familiar with Fréart’s Parallèle. The church belfry displays a faithful interpretation of Fréart’s Diocletian Doric. The metopes feature Apollo heads with surrounding rays, and the dentils have their required slits. Finally, each of the pilaster capitals has the requisite cyma recta echinus.
In the early 20th century, Stanford White embellished the entrance court colonnade of New York’s Metropolitan Club with a version of the Diocletian Doric capitals more closely adhering to the Fréart illustration. (Fig. 11) Unlike the Jeffersonian examples, the echinus in each capital is enriched with foliated ornament. White also employed rosettes in the necking but used a plain astragal rather than the bead-and-reel molding seen in the original. It is interesting to note that early 20th-century architectural supply companies offered column capitals copying Fréart’s depiction to the last detail. In Richmond’s Fan District neighborhood, a number of the front porches on the neighborhood’s town houses sport handsome examples of this exemplar of imperial antiquity. (Fig. 12) These Diocletian Doric capitals are still commercially available.
Looking again at the courtyard of the Cancelleria, we see a variation of the Diocletian Doric on the upper colonnaded tier. Like Fréart’s illustration of the Diocletian Doric, it has foliated ornaments in both the cyma recta echinus and the abacus. (Fig. 13) It also has rosettes in the necking. However, it is further embellished with a row of small, upright laurel leaves immediately above the astragal. Separating this from the necking is a band of braided leaves. We might assume that the architect was creating an inventive enhancement of the Diocletian Doric in order to introduce a hierarchy in the two tiers, but this may not have been the case. More likely, this particular capital design had its own ancient precedent and coincidentally resembled the Diocletian example. In Rome’s venerable church of S. Prisca, we find an ancient capital that closely resembles the Cancelleria’s capitals. (Fig. 14) Long used as a baptismal font,[vii] this capital became the basis of a ca. 1515 engraving by Giovanni Antionio de Brescia, which image, or the capital itself, we may safely guess provided the inspiration for the Cancelleria’s capitals.[viii]
The indefatigable Paul Marie Letarouilly carefully recorded the Cancelleria’s upper tier capital (as well as the lower tier capital) in his famous series Edifices de Rome Moderne, published in periodical parts beginning in 1840.[ix] (Fig. 15) This massive compendium of exquisite drawings of Roman Renaissance buildings was an essential reference for Beaux Arts architects. Thus, it is not surprising that we see at least one faithful Beaux Arts adaptation of this elegant capital, in this instance on the wings of Cass Gilbert’s monumental West Virginia State Capitol, dedicated in 1932. (Figs 16 & 17)
The Doric of the Baths of Diocletian, thankfully recorded by Fréart de Chambray before its disappearance, and its more elaborate kindred capital, as seen in the courtyard of the Cancelleria, are important elements of our classical heritage. They merit continued use for the enrichment of contemporary classical works.
[i] Drawings for the plates in the Parallèle were provided by the painter Charles Errand. John Evelyn published an English translation of the Parallèle in 1664.
[ii] The Baths’ great central hall (tepidarium) was converted into the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in 1563-66 by Michelangelo.
[iii] As depicted by Fréart, the dentil course can also be interpreted as a Greek meander. The Jeffersonian examples treat the course with true dentils, with the vertical gouge or slit in each dentil.
[iv] Fréart’s illustration was copied without shading in Charles-Pierre Normand’s Nouveau Parallèle des Ordres d’Architecture des Grecs, des Romains et des Auteurs Moderns (1819). Normand eliminated the Apollo head from the metope. Normand’s plate is shown as Plate 20 in Donald M. Rattner’s 1998 edition of Norman’s work (Acanthus Press, New York).
[v] The columns’ Egyptian granite shafts are said to have been salvaged from the ancient Theater of Pompey, which stood nearby.
[vi] I am grateful to Geoffrey Yavonovic and Paul Ranogajec for their assistance in obtaining a photograph of the Boston Public Library capital.
[vii] Legend has it that St. Peter used the font for baptisms.
[viii] Cammy Brothers and Michael J. Waters, Variety, Archaeology, and Ornament: Renaissance Architectural Prints from Column to Cornice, on-line exhibition catalogue (University of Virginia Art Museum, Charlottesville, 2011), p. 21. I am grateful to Michael J. Waters for permission to use his photographs of the S. Prisca font and the Palazzo Cancelleria capital.
[ix] A reprint Letarouilly’s work is currently available from the Princeton Architectural Press.